On a sweltering June day, a welter of yelps rose from the playground in the northeastern corner of Greenpoint’s leafy, tidy McGolrick Park. The playground had been lined with a sturdy foam in 2018 to soften the landings of children. But there were still injuries to be had. The heat would not deter the meeting of the Greenpoint Fight Club, a group of 5- to 7-year-olds who gather after school on most days in parent-sanctioned combat.
Had this been a true fight club, of course, it would have remained secret. As any passing fan of Chuck Palahniuk knows, the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club. (It is also the second rule.) For months, that was true of the GFC too. The omertà was observed until an early Thursday evening in May, when a parent posted a question on the Facebook group Brooklyn Baby Hui. “Did anybody see the kids ‘fight club’ happening at McGolrick playground today?” she wrote. “I don’t know how else to describe it … I was a bit shocked at how aggressive it was and it was apparently parent-sanctioned as there was a group watching.”
Her query sparked a brawl among Greenpoint parents on a forum normally reserved for queries about pediatricians and nannies and mysterious but minor sick-kid symptoms. At stake wasn’t just a matter of bloody noses, but the use and purpose of public space; what, if any, level of fear or discomfort was acceptable in a park; how, if at all, should one individual’s parenting decisions be mitigated by concern for others; and whether there were any safe spaces, on Facebook or in McGolrick.
For her part, the original poster worried that her children, who saw the tussling, might feel scared. “I’m all for kids wrestling and having some fun,” she wrote. “My kids do it at home all the time, but watching this full-on fight fest was very jarring and something I wouldn’t want my kids to witness.” She ended her post with the suggestion that “maybe the parents involved can take the kids to a grassy area instead. There’s plenty of room at McGolrick.”
The comments came fast and hard. Some agreed with her that the violence was terrifying. As one parent wrote, “The public playground is a great space for everyone to [blow off steam] but everyone also needs to feel safe doing so and this post is about someone expressing they do not feel safe.” But another parent, whose child often participates in the fight club, rejoined, “We should definitely not be banished from the playground.” To this, another mother posted, “[Roughhousing] might not be behavior everyone wants their children exposed to.” Another local mom tartly asked, “So you want to make a 6-year-old move to the grass because he wants to play a sport he plays so your child won’t see it. That feels kind of entitled,” before adding, “lots of things happening in a public park that I don’t agree with. But it comes with the territory of living in New York City.”
Eventually Julie Wilson, the mother of one of the children involved, stepped in to clarify that, although the parents do call the fight club a fight club, what goes on has little to do with the nihilistic Brad Pitt movie. “Here’s the story,” she explained. “There’s a bunch of kids who like play-fighting. Some of them (including mine) take martial-arts classes and use the skills they’ve learned. Some just like to wrestle and jump on each other. Because we all have VERY active boys, we’re in the park every day. At some point most days, the kids end up fighting, usually on the rubber mats by the tightrope where there’s the most room. As parents we don’t want anyone to get hurt but we want our kids to play the way they like, so we set some rules (no kicks, no punching) and let them do their thing.”
And so it went. Parents offended by the notion of a fight club squared off against parents offended by parents offended by the notion of a fight club. It was an ouroboros of parental opinion. What was clear was that, whatever your private parental choices are, about roughhousing or 10,000 other things, in a public park, that choice will itself be subject to endless other parental choices. It, as one of the moms wrote, comes with the territory. In this sense, the post had ignited a debate about whose values matter more on a ground designed to be neutral. Tempers flared. Never has the red-heart emoji been used to such passive-aggressive devastation.
“We all collectively as a community spend a lot of time in the park over the year,” one mother, whose son plays with kids in the fight club, later explained of the foofaraw. “The families have become close. My son is watched by many families in that community. I guess you can look at the fight club as an issue of private parenting in public but I look at it as a bunch of people who didn’t want to be part of the community. I mean, the thread got so insane. People were commenting on things they’ve never seen.”
Last month, I decided to go see the fight club for myself. McGolrick Park has an almost small-town feel. The park, in the heart of Greenpoint, is used almost exclusively by those under 15 and those over 75. The elders are, by and large, Polish; the youngsters are, by and large, not. The pretty paths are lined with benches and London plane trees; a central colonnaded plaza hosts a farmers’ market every weekend. Importantly, the park is contained, and perhaps for this reason, groups of children roam the grassy areas, playgrounds and porticoes like Lenore Skenazy’s free-range brood, wielding fallen branches, running through the water-spray areas, and skipping with glee. As part of a renovation, two playgrounds had opened on the northern edge just before the pandemic: one for 2- to 5-year-olds and, just to the east of that, one for 5- to 12-year-olds.
It was 2:45 p.m. when I pushed open the creaky gate of the playground to meet Julie Wilson, wearing a black tank top and khaki scrubs with her curly hair tied back. Though she grew up in Manhattan, Wilson has a bit of a “mayor of Greenpoint” air about her, knows everyone, has an opinion on most things. Her son, Zack, as she mentioned in the Facebook group, is a part of the fight club, whose total membership, according to Wilson, amounts to fewer than ten. “Usually,” she says, “there are no more than four here at a time.”
The fight club happens in the older children’s playground, which is where I spot Zack, a spry 6-year-old wearing camouflage pants and from whose black T-shirt poked out a freckly smiling slightly mischievous face. Around his lips the fine dust of just-eaten Cheetos formed a penumbral grin. Next to Zack, in the padded area near the lily pad in the older children’s playground, stood Daniel, a 7-year-old but a few inches shorter than his opponent. The two were playing seemingly benignly with a broken skip ball Zack had brought. For about ten minutes, Julie and I watched, each of us secretly willing the children to battle. Finally, the two boys began to circle each other. For a brief moment, it looked as if they would engage but then the pair took off at a full run. Over and under the climbing structure Zack pursued Danny. They ran past other children playing peacefully, girls dangling from monkey bars, boys swizzling down the spiral slide. Beyond them, around the perimeter of the playgrounds, sat parents, many gazing into their phones, some, no doubt, following the high jinks of Brooklyn Baby Hui. Each, no doubt, held tightly to their own private parenting philosophy but, at least, for the moment, kept those feelings to themselves. Apart from the good-natured shrieks of children at play, there was no conflict visible. No parents rushing to confront each other over the use of public space nor children banished to roll around in the glass and rocks.
Eventually, near the monkey bars once again, Zack finally reached his opponent. Deftly ducking under an outstretched arm, Zack gained back control. He held Danny’s arms behind his back and flung the young man to the ground. No sooner had Danny’s torso touched the ground when Zack again took off like a rabbit. Danny jumped up in hot pursuit. He was gaining on Zack but just then, the icy cart sounded its far-off chime and the boys paused, as if dogs distracted by squirrels or sailors by sirens. Zack and Danny stopped in their tracks and ran to their mothers to plead for Icees. Fight club was over for the day.
At least it was IRL. But what scrapes and bruises children forget, parents nurse for years. The discussion wasn’t resolved. It was simply fallow. As another McGolrick mom texted, when I reached out for an interview, “I’m hesitant to put something out there which might make me some enemies among the ‘park parent’ community. (It’s cut throat lemme tell you!)”